A “game of chicken” is commonly known as a conflict between two parties where neither wants to yield, but both are hoping to avoid embarrassment and failure.
That seems to be the pervading psychological dynamic right now at Paramount Pictures, as it continues to topple its legacy leadership structure in favor of a streaming-first future under new studio chief Brian Robbins.
“We’re all playing chicken right now,” one insider told Variety, explaining that studio employees are carrying out the work of making movies with no substantive input from Robbins – the former Nickelodeon head who replaced industry statesman Jim Gianopulos as Paramount chairman and CEO earlier this month.
On Friday, Emma Watts, the stalwart production head who was labelled Paramount’s “white knight” when she joined as motion picture group president last summer, was dismissed during a morning meeting with Robbins. The call came after two weeks of Watts trying to salvage her role as franchise-builder and guardian of Paramount’s commitment to the theatrical experience. In her year at the studio, Watts threw herself into the business of reviving Paramount’s library of franchises, taking a particular interest in finding ways to get more Star Trek movies into production. Even skeptics acknowledged that her intense commitment was galvanizing. How things have changed.
Watts’ ouster – which followed last week’s exit of Paramount communications chief Chris Petrikin — has only deepened a culture of anxiety and uncertainty on the lot, numerous employees and individuals close to the ViacomCBS-owned studio said. Everyone is waiting for the next high-profile firing or unceremonious dismissal.
“The lack of communication is stunning,” said one insider, who noted Robbins has only met briefly with department heads since taking over for Gianopulos on Sept. 10. The person noted a lack of written or verbal communication to his new troops, which usually accompanies a regime change of this magnitude, and the absence of any kind of studio town hall.
Robbins has sent two memos to staff since taking the role, both after the Watts and Gianopulos news broke. Sources close to ViacomCBS said Robbins was put on the defense following press leaks, and in his most recent note pledged more transparency.
“I want you to know that I value open and direct dialogue and feedback, and I’m quickly working to install a process for us here at Paramount. There will be regular communications from me to all of you, as well as company-wide, town hall-type meetings, where we will share and download information, provide updates on our work, and build a forum for feedback and questions,” Robbins wrote in the Friday memo obtained by Variety.
There are complaints among staff that Robbins has not shared his vision of what Paramount looks like moving forward, let alone what other old guard executives might be shown the door.
“We understand that the landscape is changing rapidly, but it’d be nice to show a little dignity,” another person with knowledge of the studio said. “This game of ‘Who’s next?’ isn’t good for anyone.”
A ViacomCBS insider said Watts would be the end of executive departures at the moment. In the ever-tentative “safe for now” category sits Paramount chief operation officer Andrew Gumpert; worldwide marketing and distribution chief Marc Weinstock; Paramount Animation president Mireille Soria; and domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson.
In the weeks since Robbins’ ascension, much has been reported about his alleged sales pitch to ViacomCBS honcho Shari Redstone in securing the gig. Robbins has waved the flag of “Paw Patrol: The Movie,” as sources put it, as an example of low-cost, high return fare that can stock the Paramount Plus arsenal. That film, about the canine law enforcement officers of the fictional Adventure City, cost a reported $26 million to make and has earned over $105 million at the worldwide box office. It was available to stream on Paramount Plus the same day it released in theaters. An individual familiar with ViacomCBS said Robbins did not pitch Redstone for the gig, and his pride over “Paw Patrol” has been conflated from a recent meeting celebrating the film’s success.
Still, sources at Paramount expressed skepticism, saying a film like “Paw Patrol” fails to match the craftsmanship and storytelling in which the studio has invested. While Paramount’s market share of the domestic box office has dwindled exponentially from ten years ago, the studio had been in a rebuilding phase under Gianopulos.
There’s plenty for him to dig into. In addition to top-performing franchises like “Mission: Impossible,” John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” universe, “Sonic the Hedgehog” and the return of “Top Gun,” the studio (and Watts specifically) had been focused on retooling the “Transformers” series, launching the “Dungeons & Dragons” universe with Chris Pine and signing a splashy talent deal with Ryan Reynolds. Along with these projects, there are premium one-offs in the works with Oscar winner Damien Chazelle (“Babylon”), a return to rom-coms for Sandra Bullock (“The Lost City of D”) and Ron Howard (his first ever animated film, “The Shrinking of Treehorn”).
Insiders close to Paramount’s new world order were quick to reaffirm the company’s commitment to theatrical releases and underscored its desire to offer consumers a full spectrum of choice. But, Redstone and her team are banking that the future is going to be won by those who opt for streaming.
ViacomCBS declined to comment on this report.
Brent A. Lang contributed to this report.